We’re driving through Gillette, Wyoming at 5:00 am and it’s -12 degrees out. I’ve got the heater cranked on my pickup hard enough that we feel like we’re in a toaster, and the windows still won’t stay defrosted. Who’s idea was it to go fishing again?
Garrett, Jacob and I headed over to the thriving metropolis of Fort Smith, Montana early last week to fish the Bighorn River below Yellowtail Dam. The weather forecast looked grim, but we’d been antsy to head over so we took off when we saw highs in the 20’s. Streamer fishing was on the mind this trip, and we’d spent the previous evenings tying all sorts of articulated concoctions.
We rolled into Fort Smith around 9:30, complete with caffeine induced excitement. We stopped by the fly shop, picked up a few of the shop’s favorite streamer patterns, threw a twenty down for a shuttle and headed to the put-in right below the Afterbay dam. We strung up our rods with heavy sink tip lines, which proved themselves in the cold, wintertime waters. The Airflo Streamer Max Kelly Galloup sink tip lines worked great, and kept the fly in front of the fish where it needed to stay. I rowed the first stretch while Garrett and Jake fished, and we had a bit of a slow start. After fiddling around with different retrieves, we found that the fish were pretty darn close to the bottom for the most part, and the fly needed to be right in their business. After we started casting out and letting our lines drag the fly down for 10 seconds or so, we were getting bites on most casts. The Lil’ Kim was my best producer for most of the trip, but we stuck fish on a variety of streamers, both articulated and single-hooked.
Most of my streamer fishing experience out of a boat has been something like this – you put the boat about 40 feet off the bank, and you cast your fly as close as you can to the shore and start stripping almost immediately, and most of your bites come in the first few strips. This trip was a little different, due to the water hovering around 40 degrees and the trout being a bit more sluggish. We’d put the boat a good ways off the bank, and cast to the middle of the river, letting our flies sink for a good 5-10 seconds before start a medium speed, methodical retrieve. Once we figured out what kind of mood the fish were in, we were hooking fish on a regular basis, with a lot of bites and follows mixed in for good measure.
After waking up on day two to what sounded like a bowling league going on in the hallway, but really just turned out to be a gang of duck hunters that loved dragging their decoys down the hallway at 5:00 am, we shuffled outside to find my pickup and the boat covered in a solid 3″ of snow. The upside to this was that it hadn’t gotten freezing cold overnight and it was still a balmy 15 degrees. Not ones to be deterred, we went and got a shuttle and putted down the icy highway to the 3-mile put in. We were greeted with a wonderfully slick boat ramp, and had to skid the boat down the boat launch while getting pulled by the boat down the ice.
This day turned out to be our best day of fishing, and we were nearly alone on the ten-mile float. The solitude, persistent snow, and lack of wind made for an eerily lonesome float – which is seldom found on the Bighorn, and is the reason we almost always head over in the dead of winter. We caught a lot of fish, and it was consistent all day. We even swung up a few on a Scott L2H Switch Rod, which was reminiscent of my steelhead excursion last fall. Same as the day before, the heavy sink lines really helped us keep the fly down in the fishes zone and ultimately helped us hook a lot more fish than we otherwise would have. Lil Kim’s, Home Invaders, and Slumpbusters all caught their fair share of fish, knotted to Maxima Ultragreen 10 pound tippet. Jacob DeGroot, who many of you know from the shop, snapped some great shots of our trip. All pictures are courtesy of him – here’s a few more.
We woke up to more snow on day three, which wasn’t forecasted or expected on our part. Because of the snow, we decided to do the short float from Afterbay to Three Mile again and then get headed home. It was a little bit slower, but we still caught more than enough fish. We took out around 1:00, then started the trek home. Overall, the streamer fishing was excellent. Could we have nymphed and caught more fish? Probably the case, but we went over wanting to fish streamers, and that’s what we did. It’s an exciting way to fish, and you’re more likely to catch bigger fish than you regularly would throwing a size 20. Even with the cold weather and less than ideal conditions, we had a great trip and had the river more or less to ourselves. As Jake said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear and bad attitudes!”. I would highly recommend the Bighorn River in the off-season not only for the solitude, but also for the exceptional fishing during the winter.